Lady Antebellum’s Strategy for Song Selection
Used by Permission © 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
It’s been only five years since Lady Antebellum released its self-titled debut album, which propelled the group toward millions-upon-millions of album and single sales, seven Grammy Awards and six CMA Awards. In 2009, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott solidified their superstar status with the crossover appeal of the power ballad “Need You Now,” which they’d written with Josh Kear. And their newest album, Golden, debuted at No.1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart.
During the Golden sessions, though, sales and crossover possibilities were far from top priorities. “We wrote a lot on the road, so a lot of songs, like ‘Generation Away’ (written by Haywood, Kelley, Scott, Brad Warren and Brett Warren), were written with that thought of, ‘How is this going to translate live?’” Kelley explained. “We talk a lot about wanting more and more tempo songs, especially as singles, and that’s what drove us to release ‘Downtown’ (Luke Laird, Shane McAnally and Natalie Hemby). As our live show grows, you really want songs that get people out of their seats.”
The key to achieving that was to channel the energy from their tour into jamming with their road band whenever the opportunity presented itself.
“We actually get up there and soundcheck every day when we’re out on the road,” Haywood said. “Sometimes the band will start jamming and we’ll jump in. Then we’ll take it backstage and finish it. That’s actually how, on the last album, we wrote ‘Wanted You More’ (Haywood, Kelley, Scott plus members of their band: bassist Dennis Edwards, guitarist Jason “Slim” Gambill, keyboardist Jonathan Long and former member Matt Billingslea). Some of these songs are seven or eight writers on a song, but for us it’s all about getting the best song and whatever it takes to get there.”
While in the midst of their “Own the Night World Tour,” during which these jam sessions were taking place, the group stayed in contact with their longtime producer, Paul Worley, sending him songs along the way.
“They’re always making music,” Worley said. “That’s their way. If they’re together and the band is together, they turn the artist area in the venues into their world. They’re constantly writing, recording, pulling the players in and jamming. They don’t waste time hanging around.”
The key to the album’s appeal is in the songs. Five of its 12 tracks came from outside writers. Whatever the source, though, Kelley calls Golden the “best batch of songs we feel like we’ve had in a long time.”
“As the producer, I don’t care who wrote the songs,” Worley said. “What I care about is that the songs we’re recording are great. Really savvy artists understand that. Lady A understands that. There were some really honest and straightforward emails about songs. We’ve all worked together for so long that we don’t really have to cover up what we think. We’re not walking on eggshells with each other.”
“We wanted to make sure our sound evolved, and one way to do that is to use outside writers,” Kelley said. “As a songwriter, you tend to have a certain style. Putting your songs up against outside songs challenges you. That’s one way we’re able to stretch our sound.”
“They’re different melodies and lyrics than those we naturally gravitate toward when we’re writing,” Scott added. “We relate to them just as much as those we write ourselves, but that in itself was an evolution. It was also one of the smartest decisions we’ve made for this record.”
Every song had to prove itself to make the project. “Each outside song was for a specific reason, to take us to a place we didn’t capture when we wrote,” Haywood noted. “’Downtown’ took us to this place of having fun, partying, jaywalking, smoking — all these fun things. We didn’t have a song like that. ‘Nothin’ Like the First Time’ (Sarah Buxton, Jedd Hughes and Hillary Lindsey) reminded us of some of the nostalgic songs we put out before, and we were like, ‘We haven’t written one like that this go-round. Let’s grab that one.’ Each of them fit a piece of the puzzle for what we wanted for the record.”
To find these songs, the trio did look to traditional sources; the chart-topping first single “Downtown” was pitched to them by their label. But a few came to them by less conventional methods.
“’Get to Me’ (Lindsey and James Slater), for example, was in the running for our last record,” Scott recalled. “For whatever reason, we didn’t record it. Then Charles was going through his iTunes library with a fine-tooth comb and found it and sent it around.”
“We didn’t cut it, but luckily no one else had either,” Haywood said. “I reached back out to Hillary Lindsey and it was like, ‘Is this still free?’ She said it was and then, obviously, it goes through the channels.”
“Because we’re songwriters too and part of that community, it’s fun to go to the source, to be able to go, ‘We absolutely love this song,’” Scott continued. “There’s a method to going through the publishers and having it run through all the proper channels, but especially someone like Hillary, having such a great relationship with her, we can call her up or shoot her a text.”
Personal relationships also assisted in securing and recording “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone”), written by Will Hoge and Brian Layson and included on Hoge’s 2003 album, Blackbird on a Lonely Wire.
“I’ve had that record since college and I always thought it was great,” Haywood said. “I was listening to it, probably while running, and it was like, ‘Gosh! We could make a cool version of that!’’’
Spirit was as important as song selection to Golden, specifically in the trio’s decision to reach back to that first eponymous album and its fresh, new energy. “Our life experiences only naturally work their way into the way you write, the way you sing,” Scott reflected. “I sing completely different now from the way I did on the first record. We can never go back and be the same people we were when we recorded it. But we can definitely approach it the same as we did the first record and bring in the experience we’ve had over the past six years.”
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